Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Street Where I Live

It's a jungle in here . . . but outside, more ominous things await!

Those of you who live in the San Francisco Bay Area may have cause now and then to journey into Emeryville. At the intersection of one of the main thoroughfares into this famous, but enigmatic, city of around 7,000 souls, you’ll drive past what looks like a park: There’s a tall row of green, with concrete and a chain link fence running east toward the heart of Emeryville. A screen-block fence runs north to south along one main thoroughfare. An Alameda Transit County bathroom squats, chin up like a proud toad, as a gateway to the city.

Within that scraggly-looking patch of green is a lush oasis that shelters your correspondent. From his second-floor office window, naught stains his sensitive eyes, but a restful tangle of green trees, flowers, and bushes. Occasionally, an iridescent Anna’s hummingbird floats past, reminding him of his childhood in verdant downstate New York. That is, if he plugs his fingers in his ears. He vainly tells himself that the dull persistent roar of traffic that hums fifty feet away is only the wind . . . the wind . . . the wind! Those cries of “HEY! FUCK YOU, FUCKIN’ ASSHOLE! YOU WANT SOME O’ THIS!?” are actually the raw exuberant calls of blue jays building their spring nest outside his bedroom window! And those howling sirens? The hoots of owls beating their way through the starry night sky!

Elizabeth and I moved into this park-like island five years ago this last Friday. The house was among the first places we looked at, after we decided to nest together. We wanted it at first sight: 1500 square feet, two floors with two bright, large upstairs rooms, big enough to swing an ocelot; down below, a large, lovingly built kitchen, with beautiful Mediterranean-style tile counters, tile floors throughout and an excellent professional range stove. The rest was large enough for Elizabeth’s walnut Kawai grand piano. The final touch is a quiet nook perfect for reading and meditating. All of it framed by a quirky, brown-shingle skin, faintly reminiscent of my childhood home.

We liked Dave and Carla, the landlords, and they liked us. Dave had built our place himself out of the remains of an old chicken house. A fig tree and an apple tree face our front door. Three towering tanoaks, wrapped in ivy, do their best as a sound baffle to the left. Gardens stretch along on three sides: geraniums, roses, pansies, dahlias. In the driveway, stand an ornamental pepper tree, a cypress, and one that might be an avocado tree, except it bears no fruit. In addition to the hummingbirds, robin, finches and towhees build their nests around here.

Bougainvillea and yucca line the driveway. When I need some lemon zest for cooking, I have six lemon trees to choose from out front. There’s a bush of rosemary, too. In places, the one-acre compound becomes almost a jungle. From some spots, you can barely see the street.

Three other houses make up the compound. One of them, an old Victorian built around 1884, is considered the oldest house in Emeryville, and was the main residence of a two-hundred acre cherry orchard. My favorite house is a towering 2.5-story structure built maybe in the early 1890s. In Emeryville’s wilder (and more interesting) days, Dave tells us, it was a house of ill-repute. Until the recent (and excellent) remodelling by Matthew, our caretaker, you could see, in the basement, the remains of the tile flooring of the hair salon whose business was keeping the gals well-coifed.

Upstairs, the first floor is a high-ceilinged homey stunner. There’s an old tiled and light wood-framed fireplace in the living room. Glass double doors, their tops stained, open onto a porch (Envision me reading the Sunday paper in my robe, drinking fine single malts and bellowing at you to get the hell off my big front lawn.) Twice, we’ve had the opportunity to take this place: the first time we turned it down because of lassitude; the second, because we’re moving next spring.)

Space forbids me from telling about the cozy, curious series of warrens on the second floor, because I have to tell you about the art work: Back in the 1920s, Harlan Wilson, a former Emeryville mayor, bought the compound with the idea of turning it into an artist’s colony. How close he came to reaching that goal is not known, but he left some tantalizing clues. The circular driveway in front of the 1884 house contains mosaics pressed into the concrete. A painting of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is framed in the coiling brickwork of the Big House’s south wall, while a tile landscape painting winks at you from the southeast front corner. Three more mosaics can be found on the north wall, one of them incorporated into a chimney.

Turnover in this paradise is low. Even the birds, and the stray cats that hunt them, stay for years. (We even had a possum wander through occasionally, name of Lyle.) The most recent departure left after nine years. The longest residents have been here for twelve. (There are, surprisingly to me, no legends of hauntings, though I wonder about that chicken house.)

“Sooooo, Burchfield,” I hear you sneer, “if this place is soooo wonderful, why are you leaving!?”

That question, I’ll tackle in a later blog: The one where I take you outside the gates of paradise.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Me Too, Dept: On Wings of Silver Hair and Foaming Surf


“We all dream of being a child again. Even the worst of us . . . perhaps the worst most of all”—The Wild Bunch.

The whole world has pitched its two bits on David Chase’s DIY ending for The Sopranos saga and . . . yeah, it guess it’s “brilliant.” It’s not the first time a blackout’s been done. John Sayles snipped the scissors the same way in his 1999 movie, Limbo. I walked out on that one. “That’s like real life!” sang one critic. Me, I thought it was a movie. The only time I conk out like that is by hammer blow or anesthesiologist’s needle. Let’s call the ending a courageous act of gutsy indecision.

I was puzzled by some of the more anguished reactions, like Gary Kamiya’s overwrought piece in Salon¬ (So seething with anguish, I thought his kids were being shipped off to Iraq). More refreshing was National Lampoon alumnus Tony Hendra’s anti-Sopranos rant at the Huffpo. Though I’m on the pro-side of the argument, I found that Hendra’s growly (and knowledgeable) skepticism put things in perspective.

One thing I enjoyed most about The Sopranos, even when the show was flat, boring and, yes, predictable, was one of its most durable supporting characters: Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri. Most all the male characters in The Sopranos were no more than deadly delinquents, but Paulie Walnuts, (wonderfully acted by Tony Sirico, once a real-life hoodlum himself) with his fussy vanity and big sad brown eyes, was the most childlike and childish of them all.

I didn’t catch on to Paulie until Episode #2.9 (“From Where to Eternity”). In one scene, Paulie’s girlfriend’s kids (none of whom ever appear again) awaken Paulie in the early morning suffering from a nightmare. Instead of whacking them (like he does with everyone else) Paulie gently leads them back to bed, sweet morning light shining on his face: Here, the vilest of a gang of thugs and killers, is given an angel’s moment. Grace might be in the offing. This moment is echoed again, in the same episode, when Paulie attends a séance where he’s confronted by the spirits of his victims and becomes a man who fears Hell.

A few other favorite “Paulie” moments: Paulie and Christopher bumbling around the woods like Laurel and Hardy in the “Pine Barrens” episode; Paulie’s devotion to his mother (a devotion later both betrayed and restored) and how it inspires some of his most appalling acts; Paulie’s “1984” moment, when he realizes that hanging a Napoleonic portrait of his boss in his living room maybe isn’t such a swell idea. Paulie’s neediness leads him to his near-betrayal of Tony at one point and almost fire up a gang war. This same neediness endangers him and Tony in the last season and almost drives Tony to whack him during a boat trip similar to the one that ended Big Pussy’s life.

Paulie Walnuts was the Sopranos character Elizabeth and I probably yelled at the most: “Paulie! Put that gun down!” “Paulie! Stop smothering that old woman with that pillow!” “Paulie! Go apologize to your aunt! Now!”

Watching Paulie was like a having an adorable—but lethal—two-year old tearing around the house. The kind of kid you have to pat down for weapons before giving him a hug.

I didn’t think he’d make it to the end. His impulsiveness was sure to lead to his doom. But it was not to be. Paulie lived after all and even came out on top. David Chase handled this plot strand beautifully, I thought. Unlike some commentators I could name (that’s one great thing about the Blogosphere—I can publicly thumb my nose at Brian Williams!) I thought that cat was the perfect comic foil for Paulie’s insecure superstitious nature. We last see Paulie contentedly sunning himself in front of Satriale’s, once again securely in Tony Soprano’s grace. The cat—a handsome, well-trained orange tabby--wanders into the frame from the right, cautiously approaching Paulie. But he stops just short and hunkers down, content to share some of that same sun. Like some of us, he’s drawn to Paulie . . . but close enough is close enough.


So, I’m over the ending of The Sopranos but here’s something I’m not over: the mysterious frustrating fate of Deadwood. If there’s ever a TV show I’m happy to get pretentious about, it’s David Milch’s glorious American creation myth: I pompously believe Deadwood to have been a much more truly “American” show than The Sopranos ever was. With a production sculpted down to the last muddy detail and maybe the greatest ensemble acting in the history of film and tape, Deadwood was an artistic treasure box of pleasures sensual, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. It was violent and profane, but not afraid to cast its eye on the spirits, both heavenly and demonic, that helped build this nation.

But, puff my chest up all I want, it’s gone, for reasons unclear, it seems, even to Milch and HBO. What we get in its place is a comparatively low-key (and low-budget), surf/noir, magic realist, maybe-a-Christian-allegory, comedy/drama about a surfing family titled John from Cincinnati. The reviews have been mixed. I was prepared to hate it like I’ve hated nothing since Battlefield Earth, but I’ll surf another episode, if only to see *Deadwood alumni* like Jim Beaver, Dayton Callie, and the amazing Garret Dillahunt. (Who will this remarkable chameleon become now?)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

I See You Hear Me

There are two voices we hear throughout our lives: the one inside our heads when we speak; and the other one that we hear when are played back through a recording. “Who the hell’s that?” is a common question the first time out.

I always preferred the one coming from my skull. It sounded good and manly to me. Until the day I heard it hissing and mumbling from a primitive tape recorder. I clutched my heart and thought “No . . . no . . . that can’t be me . . . it . . . just . . . can’t!”

That was not the voice I heard dulcimer-ing in my skull. Not the voice of my much much older and much much ultra-manlier brothers: Men whose voices gonged from the mountaintops, voices that cracked, boomed and echoed off of cliffs from miles away. Men whose shouts of “Gimme a beer!” “Shut the fuck up when I’m talking!” and “Get out of the goddamn way! I’m watching TV!” denoted power, authority, intelligence, wisdom and, of course, maturity.

My voice conveyed none of those things on that tape. The words are forgotten, but the sounds and my discomfort are not: I sounded high, soft and fluty, an octave or two above the macho baritone I thought I had, almost a soprano. I sounded mumbly, weak and ineffectual. My voice lacked diction, resonance and grown-upedness.

I had a “girly-man’s” voice.

This distressed me for many years. I avoided pain by avoiding tape recorders. Yes, I liked the sound of my own voice, but only from within the padding of my head, where it belonged. I could always fool myself that I sounded smarter than I was.

In college, I majored in theatre. (Put those eyebrows down. Thank you.) With stage acting, you never have to actually see or hear yourself as others do. I saw myself act maybe two or three times, and each time, my vanity curdled like old milk, until finally I decided to give myself the hook and find another gig.

From what I remember, mine was a minority opinion. I was praised quite often and generously as a neophyte thespian. Some said I might make a go at it, maybe playing light-comic Jimmy Stewart parts, professors and grandpas or good-‘ol boy villains. (Secretly, I always wanted to be Lee Van Cleef, but that’s not a dream you share during a production of Hamlet.)

But my opinion was what counted and it was not positive. But this has never stopped anyone from praising the sound of my voice, calling it “unique” and “distinctive.”

Last Thanksgiving, my nephew Mark joined the chorus, after hearing my famous diabolical Dracula cackle: “You’ve got a cool voice, Uncle Thomas. You oughta do radio commercials.”

Suddenly, a traitorous thought whispered from the darkened coils of my brain: Maybe what I think in this matter, doesn’t matter! The rule is (hand solemnly over my chest): “A man only does what he believes in his heart he’s good at!” But sometimes, people think we’re better at something than we think you are. Maybe, sometimes, we should listen.

Lately, the household has been needing a bump in its cash flow (My novel, The Vampire of Alpine Canyon—which, of course, you will all read when it comes out--remains a work in progress). The splash of that little pebble that Mark tossed into the water barrel of my skull was echoing when I later grabbed an issue of The Learning Annex (The College of Continuing Education for Cheap Yuppies): and found an ad I’d seen before: “How to Make Money With Voiceovers in Radio and TV!”

Since January, I’ve been taking lessons to become a voiceover actor. Right, I’m training to sell weight-loss products, medical devices and Viagra. The money is promising, at least on a per-gig basis. My superb and patient instructor, David Rosenthal, a twenty-plus-year veteran of over 600 voiceover commercials (and many other forms of narration), is one of the hordes, who, mysteriously to me, seems to think so much more of my potential than I do. (David has also authored a novel called Simon Plays.)

The best part is, voiceover acting is fun. (And, in its way, it’s serious. Selling aspirin requires as much intensity as “To be or not to be.”) Acting is always fun: I recommend you all try it at least once in your life . . . but here’s the strangest notion to come out of it all—and it's coming as I write this—What does the trail to this decision say about me? If it’s true that I’m a better actor than I give myself credit for, does the opposite hold? Am I—and believe me, I tremble—not as good a writer as I think I am? (Again, my dear patient public will be the ones who provide that answer.) No matter how wise we get, the capacity for self-delusion remains.

Whatever happens, if they want to pay me for a pirate’s voice that sounds only like Burchfield imitating Walter Matthau imitating Robert Newton in Roman Polanski’s Pirates, if they want me to play a Viagra-pushing Henry Morgan, then, by God, they’ll get the best pirate I've got, eye-patch, peg leg and all. Someone’s gonna pay. 'Arrr, they will . . . !

(Photo by Elizabeth Burchfield; mouth by Cartier)

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Old Media Department: Mailer and His Demon

As a genre fiction enthusiast and sometime World War II buff, I couldn’t help but be intrigued to find that yet another highbrow mainstream author has swum through the dark pool of the horror genre. This time, from these deeps, rises an interesting hybrid of historical novel and Gothic tale, this one excavating the childhood of Adolf Hitler. That book is The Castle in the Forest. The author is Norman Mailer.

Before you litterateurs wince, here’s a plain fact: Practically every major literary writer (except maybe Hemingway) has at least one horror tale lurking in their oeuvre. Young Tennessee Williams wrote for Weird Tales. Truman Capote spun several contributions to the genre. No less a novelist than John Updike, in The New Yorker awhile back, picked James Joyce’s The Dead as the finest ghost story ever. (We may disagree, but we won’t argue.) One of my favorite gothic horror novels is Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates: a perennial Pulitzer and Nobel Prize nominee and winner of the National Book Award and the Bram Stoker Award.

If you know Mailer’s work or reputation (I’ve only read The Naked and the Dead, An American Dream, and his very useful book on writing, The Spooky Art) it might be as one of the most ultra-macho of American writers. Mailer has gone to extremes few would dare, often at serious costs to his reputation (Supporting Jack Henry Abbott. Stabbing his wife. Head-butting Gore Vidal. Mailer has never seemed to need a full moon to become a werewolf in his long public career.)

The Castle in the Forest is told by a wandering demon who occupies the body of one Dieter, an S.S. man under the stick of Heinrich Himmler. But the Demon’s true Fuehrer is a certain “Maestro” who may—or may not—be Satan Himself.

Hitler’s roots have always been mysterious, even to Hitler. Fearful that “Jewish blood” might swirl through his veins (likely not, per the best evidence), he orders “Heini” Himmler to investigate. Himmler is passionately curious about the origins of his beloved “Superman” (and is one of the best pointers for the theory that Nazism was primarily a religious movement.)

It so happens that, once upon a time, Little Dolfie was a “client” of the Demon’s who was given this job by the Maestro. It is this Demon who sweeps us back to misty nineteenth century rural Hapsburg Austria and into the brutal humble life of Hitler’s father: one Alois Schicklgruber (and don’t we all wish he’d kept that name!? Say it out loud: “Heil Schicklgruber!” O, for the want of a nail!)

Through his Demon, Mailer points the finger of blame, not at Alois’ parenting skills (which, while often harsh in the manner of his time, appear mostly inconsistent and fumbling), but at his marriage to Anna Ploezl, Adolf’s mother. History has documented this kind, naïve and devout woman as Alois’ blood niece, but, claims the Demon, the couple was actually much much closer than that. He concludes that it was their incest that created the monster who stirs our nightmares still.

This theory of the origins of Hitler's evil is as plausible as others. (The sole source for the myth that it was all Hitler’s Daddy’s Fault is Hitler: like we can believe him!) But once this revelation passes, Mailer’s narrative seems to lose traction, though it’s always interesting and superbly written. It’s full of interesting ruminations: swipes at “popular writers;” a long treatise on apiculture; an eventful side-trip to the chaotic coronation of Tsar Nicholas II; and Satan’s love for all fundamentalists, religious and secular.

I like how Mailer handles the supernatural elements: Demonic power is purely psychic. Demons prefer to worm their way into the troughs dug by dreams where they plant their nefarious notions. (Since he’s a sociopath born of incest, little Dolfie has the richest soil.) Mailer conjures many disturbing and chilling moments. He’s a little less successful with the setting: much of the best horror writing is deeply evocative of place, and landscapes like this—the ground of Grimm’s Fairy Tales—beg for more vivid treatment.

Much of the narrative follows Alois’ and Anna’s hard struggle to make a life together; how the taboo they share remains buried in their subconscious, while shaping their lives as they innocently shelter the child of evil they have borne together. It makes for a story of strong pathos, but its true horror can only be found beyond this tale’s end. Stirring traditional horror into real history is a difficult recipe to pull off, but Mailer comes closer than most.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.